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‘Freedom, Even at a Bargain, Is Priceless’: Writers Reflect on Where India Is Today

Saturday 3 September 2022, by siawi3


‘Freedom, Even at a Bargain, Is Priceless’: Writers Reflect on Where India Is Today

Amitava Kumar and several others

August 28, 2022

To mark 75 years of India’s independence, PEN America reached out to over 100 authors from India and the Indian diaspora to write short texts expressing what they felt. This exercise, the organisation writes, aimed to recognise that “what should be a moment of celebration and joy has become a moment of deep despair and reflection”.

“But the election in 2014 has transformed India into a country where hate speech is expressed and disseminated loudly; where Muslims are discriminated against and lynched, their homes and mosques bulldozed, their livelihoods destroyed; where Christians are beaten and churches attacked; where political prisoners are held in jail without trial. Dissenting journalists and authors are denied permission to leave the country. The institutions that can defend India’s freedoms—its courts, parliament and civil service, and much of the media—have been co-opted or weakened. In PEN America’s most recent Freedom to Write Index, India is the only nominally democratic country included in our count of the top 10 jailers of writers and public intellectuals worldwide. In recent years, India has seen an acceleration of threats against free speech, academic freedom and digital rights, and an uptick in online trolling and harassment,” PEN America’s introduction to the compilation of entries states.

Here, we reproduce from the PEN website what some of these writers have said in their submissions about their perspectives on the last 75 years and their hopes for the future.

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Amitava Kumar

On February 23, 2020, riots erupted in Delhi. The homes and shops owned by Muslims in northeast Delhi went up in flames after a ruling party politician, irked by those protesting discriminatory citizenship laws, whipped fanatical fury among his followers. There is a story that I wrote down in my notebook from one of the news-reports I had read: ‘A Muslim resident of Shiv Vihar kept pet pigeons. The mob burned down his home and then killed the pigeons by wringing their necks.’ Were they Muslim pigeons? There is another brief, heartbreaking detail that I recorded in my notebook: ‘A man returned to a street corner to sift with his hands through a pile of black and gray ash searching for his brother’s bones. He had seen his brother on fire as he tried to flee the mob. He found charred bits that he was going to bury in a cemetery when peace returned.’

I believe we should remember what was done by our fellow human beings. We ought to fight for justice on behalf of those so grievously wronged. What is the central conceit of art? That someone reading you will be moved, that your work will leave someone altered or changed. I cannot say I have bought into that worldview completely. But I do want to remember, and my words or art to keep alive a memory. Many lovers of Urdu poetry remember Bashir Badr’s lines: ‘Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein / Tum taras nahin khaate bastiyan jalaane mein.’ (People go broke in building a home / And you remain unmoved as you burn down whole neighborhoods.) The poet was speaking from experience. His own home in Meerut was gutted and reduced to rubble in the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1987. Like Bashir Badr, I am saying that I remember, I remember.

(Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. He is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, and, most recently, a book of drawings. Kumar was born in Ara, Bihar, and teaches at Vassar College in the United States.)

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Arshia Sattar

When you live in a nightmare, when you wake each day with a sense of dread, you recall things that gave you hope, you imagine things as they could be, you look for reasons to engage with your increasingly horrifying reality.

I often return, at those times, to a past that promised a world of peace and love and harmony, of equality and freedom for everyone. Singer Joni Mitchell comes to mind, telling me that we are better than what we are living through, that we have been sold for blood money, that we must bring ourselves back to the beauty, the compassion and the solidarity that we are all capable of.

We are stardust, we are golden

We are part of the devil’s bargain

And we’ve got to get ourselves

Back to the garden.

– Joni Mitchell, Woodstock, 1969

(Arshia Sattar is a writer in Bangalore. She translates from Sanskrit. Her work includes translations of the Ramayana, and three critical studies.)

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Geetanjali Shree

The time was my childhood. Till recently it did not feel so very long ago, but, suddenly now, it does. Not because I have come a long way but because I feel I might be near the end!

In that childhood would come a rare sound, a whirring, in the skies, in those days quite blue still. We would rush outdoors and look up. A machine with wings, flying far far above, flying far far away. To lands remote. To lands longed for. To lands never to be reached.

Hawaijahaz hawaijahaz, we children would shout.

It was no whirring. It was stirring of our dreams and longings.

Today. A whirr in the skies. The whirring as rare as in my childhood. The skies as blue. I don’t rush out but go with some weariness to the window, or to the balcony, my access to the outside during lockdown. I look up, a wee bit sadly, longing somewhat still, but dreams feeling a bit quashed. It is the same machine with wings, flying far far above, flying far far away, to places which had all come in my reach, but, may have gone out of my reach forever and ever.

There was magic when the horizon was far. Possibilities were the stuff of dreams.

But man was fast and confident and driven. He forged ahead. Became too fast, overconfident, ruthlessly ambitious.

The collateral effects were to my pleasure. I got on to planes and crossed the horizon. I wandered in unknown lands. Dreams became reality.

Everything became possible. Everything opened up. Everything lay under me. The trees of my childhood which gave shade to my house were now trees over which my house in a multistorey towered.

Man, the master of all, friend to none.

In the market. In global competition. In barrier-crossing. In the country, in the countryside, in the center, in the margins, in the skies and the waters and ready to be so in Space too.

We shook up everything and felt good about it. I did too as I am the collateral beneficiary of this glittery, overhyped, overactive world. Ever increasing our pace.

But shaking up everything meant Everything moved.

That Everything was alive. We were not making an inanimate world move. We were shaking up the Animate. Earth. Air. Water. Planets. Mountains. Worms.

Warnings came. Everything is shaking and us too with it and it will speed up. Speed thrills but also kills. But we believed in our immortality.

It struck. The virus.

In a flood a scorpion climbed up a swimmer’s shoulder and was being safely ferried across. Midway it stung its savior, the very being saving it. But the scorpion was innocent. Stinging was its Dharma.

So too the virus. It was merely fulfilling its Dharma to leap borders and infect bodies.


But man? His Dharma?

And what of me, willy-nilly part of that erring man?

How now and how much to slow down after getting addicted to speed? After flying galore, rending apart the atmosphere, how, and how much, to fold up my wings?

The world had to run at our behest. We were not going to be dictated by a virus. We planned on gagging others, not ourselves.

So are we the aliens and robots we thought we will make of you and control? Hey you, in front of me, behind that mask and in that three piece protective suit, are you human? Am I? No smile. No hug, kiss, touch, love!

Move over humans, for the aliens and the Robots are upon us and are we them!

I was sure I will escape even if you can’t!

There was this earthworm which raised its head from the mud and stared at the disaster all around. He saw another earthworm doing the same. And said to the other—you stay stuck here, I am leaving for happier pastures.

At which the second earthworm replied—idiot, we are linked, I am your other end! Where I stay there you do too, where you go there go I. But where is there to go?

Here, he said, as if resolving anything, take this mask!

So—no place to go and anyway planes are not flying and when they do it is not safe and us a bunch of earthworms, some heads, some tails, all in the same mess of overkill and overreach. In masks.

That was then. Indeed planes are flying again and there we are flying in them as jubilantly as before. No slowing down, no reflecting on lessons to be learnt, improving the world, we confidently believe again.

Gandhi was not such a madman after all!

[Geetanjali Shree lives in Delhi and writes in Hindi. She wrote this piece in Hindi and translated it. She is the author of five novels, including ‘Ret Samadhi’ (Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell) which won the International Booker Prize in 2022. She has also written five collections of short stories. She is one of the founding members of a theatre group, Vivadi.]

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Jerry Pinto

1977. A cinema hall in Mahim, Mumbai. Amar Akbar Anthony is playing. It is a Manmohan Desai special, which means we, the audience, those who love Hindi films, were ready for a rollick. We did not expect to cry.

To those lucky people who have not seen AAA, as we learned to call it: A terrible rich man kills someone by mistake; he asks his loyal driver, Kishanlal, to take the blame and promises that he will look after the driver’s family and his three children. Kishanlal takes the fall, goes to jail and when he comes out, he finds his wife is dying of tuberculosis and his sons are starving. He goes to confront his boss and in return for his loyalty, his boss orders his henchmen to kill Kishanlal. He eludes them and jumps into a car full of gold bullion and comes home to find his wife has gone off to commit suicide.

The goons are still in hot pursuit so he stashes the children for safety in a nearby park, in the shadow of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi and continues to take evasive action. His eldest son runs after the car but is knocked down, and left by the side of the road. A policeman takes the boy home, adopts him and names him Amar. The second boy is adopted by a Muslim tailor and named Akbar. The third child falls asleep in front of a Christian church and is adopted by the priests; he is Anthony. The boys grow up and one day, they are called to a hospital to give blood to a woman who is in need of it. They do not know it but they are donating blood for their mother.

Now, everyone knows that when you go and donate your blood, you fill a bottle and it is whisked off to the blood bank. But in Manmohan Desai’s magnificent and corny spectacle making, this could not be how we would see it. The three young men are seen lying down in a ward and each would declare his name as a nurse hooked him up to a blood donation line.

“Amar,” declares the Hindu as his blood rises up, against the laws of gravity, to meet the blood of Akbar and Anthony. Then these three bloodstreams, conjoined, flowed down into the arm of their mother.

The man in the next seat began to weep. The whole theater was weeping together as a song underlined the message: Kya iski keemat chukaani nahin? (Will you pay your debt?) They got it. You don’t get India unless you have Amar, Akbar and Anthony, blood and blood and blood, paying their debt to the motherland.

I wept too. I was eleven years old.

At the end of the film, we all came out of the theater having cried and laughed and rejoiced when the three brothers are reunited in the end.

I used to say that the trope of three brothers separated at birth and reunited at the end was Hindi cinema’s way of thinking about Pakistan and Bangladesh. That we don’t make these films any more is perhaps our way of reconciling to the new political reality of the subcontinent.

I showed the film to a group of students recently. One of them said: “I’d really like to know what happened afterwards. Was Akbar circumcised by his Muslim father? Did Anthony remain a Christian?”

On bad days and there are so many of them, I know the answer to that one.

On days of hope, I cling to the promise/premise of those lines

Anhonee ko honee kar de, honee ko anhonee.

Ek jagah jab jamaa ho teenon:

Amar, Akbar, Anthony

A rough translation of which would be: When the three of us, when Amar and Akbar and Anthony, get together, we make the impossible, possible.

(Jerry Pinto is a poet, novelist, and translator in Bombay, and the author of several works of fiction, translations, and poetry, including ‘Em and the Big Hoom’. He received the Windham-Campbell Prize for Fiction in 2016.)

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K.R. Meera

Independence Day is something personal to me. My grandfather was a freedom fighter. I grew up with the pride of knowing that I too am a part and partner of the legacy of a greatness named India.

My India is the promised land where every single citizen sings: “where the mind is without fear and where the head is held high.” My India is the paradise of the ultimate freedom of everyone’s thoughts and expressions. My India is characterised by non-violence and Ahimsa. My India is deep rooted in pluralism, diversity, and secularism. My India is where wisdom prevails, scholarship is treasured, human dignity is ensured, justice is endorsed.

I can’t imagine India in any other way. My India is a living entity, growing within me, through me and out of me, forming an ecosystem. My India is a happy country. A very very happy country.

(K.R. Meera was born in Kerala and lives in Kottayam. She is the author of ten novels, nine collections of short stories, and three memoirs, all written in Malayalam.)

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Nayantara Sahgal

Since 2014 when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power for the first time since independence, India has been under fascist rule. Indians are deprived of their Constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression and the right to live and worship as they choose.

After independence from British rule in 1947, a multi-religious multi-cultural India, in its regard for all religions, emphatically rejected a religious identity. The ruling regime now defines the country as Hindu (in a distorted form known as Hindutva) and makes outsiders of all non-Hindus.

The persecution or killing of “outsiders” is now rife, as is of those who oppose this fanaticism. I have called this development the Unmaking of India and have seen fit to describe it in political articles, in my correspondence with the writer Kiran Nagarkar (published as a book, Encounters with Kiran) and in my new fiction, When the Moon Shines by the Day and The Fate of Butterflies, now published in a joint edition called The Unmaking of India Chronicles.

Can the spirit of 1947 complete with its individual rights and freedoms be recaptured? The battle is on. Civil servants, lawyers, writers, artists, farmers, students, teachers, and women in great numbers and organised groups, are joined in the fight which is desperate because at present there is no sign of hope or light in this darkness.

(Nayantara Sahgal was born in Allahabad and lives in Dehradun. She is the author of 13 novels and seven works of non-fiction. She has been engaged in the demand for freedom of speech which is now under increasing pressure.)

❈ ❈

Pratap Bhanu Mehta

The passage of time in nations is not marked by dates. It is marked by moods. India at 75 is youthful, energetic, innovative, politically engaged, with a stronger state. It has, persisting poverty notwithstanding, traveled a considerable distance from the abject material dependence of 1947.

But instead of writing its will across the stars in the glorious language of freedom, India has a strange haunted feeling, as if it is possessed by too many inner demons. It fears individual freedom. It valourises ethnic majoritarianism. It is impatient of its own plurality. Its growth in power has denuded its spiritual confidence. Its Constitution is being reduced to mere form. Its politics is a throwback to the 1940’s: Blasphemy, Identity and Revenge are its watchwords rather than Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

India is, as Raja Rao once said, is a darsana – a philosophical term meaning to discern or to behold – one that seems to overcome time. But it will be dishonest to not admit to a sense of foreboding.

There is one “patriotic” song that has been impossible to get out my head “Hum laye hain toofan as kishti nikal ke, is desh ko rakhna mere bacho samabhal ke” (We rescued this fragile boat from the storm/ my children take care of this country).

We did not need heed the fragility of this experiment. And as parents often do, we now hope our children will do a better job than we did. The good news is that they probably will. The bad news is: if only we let them. This is not India at 75, as much as a time for refounding.

(Pratap Bhanu Mehta is Senior Fellow, Center for Policy Research Delhi, and Laurence S. Rockefeller Visiting Professor at Princeton University. He has written widely on democracy and constitutionalism.)

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Suketu Mehta

I am writing this as an act of love. I was born in India, and I love India with all my being. But this country that I love is facing the gravest threat to its democracy since its founding.

Indian democracy is one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements. Over 75 years, we built, against great odds, a nation that for the first time in its 5,000-year history empowered women and the Dalits, people formerly known as untouchables. We largely abolished famine. We kept the army out of politics. After independence, many people predicted that we would become Balkanised. Yugoslavia became Balkanised, but India stayed together. No small feat.

But I write this today to tell you: things in India are more dire than you realise. India is a country that is majority Hindu, but it is not officially a Hindu state. The people who are in power in India today want to change this. They want India to be a Hindu ethnocratic state, where all other religions live by Hindu sufferance.

This has practical consequences: people of other religions are actively harassed, even lynched on the streets; their freedom to practice their religion in their own way is circumscribed. And when they protest, they are jailed and their houses bulldozed. Most worrying, much of the judiciary seems to be sympathetic to the Hindu nationalist agenda, and issues its verdicts accordingly.

There is also sustained and systematic harassment of writers, journalists, artists, activists, religious figures – anyone who questions the official narrative. We who have attached our names here are taking great personal risk in writing this: our citizenship of India could be revoked, we could be banned from the country, our property in India seized, our relatives harassed.

There are many others who think like we do but have told us they cannot speak out, for fear of the consequences. I never thought I’d use the word “dissident” in describing myself and my friends who have compiled this document. I thought that word only applied to the Soviet Union, North Korea, China.

It is crucial that India remains a democracy for all its citizens. India is not Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan. Not yet. A lot of India’s standing in the world – the reason we are included in the respectable nations, the reason our people and our tech companies are welcome all over the world – is that we are seen, unlike, say, China, as being a multi-ethnic democracy that protects its minorities.

With over 200 million Indian Muslims, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. There are 30 million Indian Christians. There are Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Atheists. They are as Indian as I am – a Hindu who’s proud of being a Hindu, but not a Hindu as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party seek to define me.

When countries safeguard the rights of their minorities, they also safeguard, as a happy side effect, the rights and wellbeing of their majorities. If a judiciary forbids discrimination against, say, Muslims, it is also much more likely to forbid discrimination against, say, LGBTQ+ people. The obverse is also true: when they do not safeguard the rights of their minorities, every other citizen’s rights are in peril.

The alienation of Indian Muslims would be catastrophic, for India and the world. They are being told: you are invaders, this is not your country, go back to where you came from. But Indian Muslims did not come from elsewhere; they were in the country all along, and chose which God to worship. After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, they voted with their feet; they chose to stay, and build a nation.

The challenges facing India in the next 75 years are colossal, perhaps even greater than the first 75 years. This year, northern India saw the hottest temperatures in history, reaching 49 degrees Celsius. Next year looks to be even hotter. By the middle of the century, New Delhi could become uninhabitable.

The country also has an enormous, restive, and largely unemployed youth population – half of its population is under 25. But only 36% of the working-age population has a job. To meet these challenges, it is crucial that the country stay united, and not fracture along religious lines, spend its energies building a brighter future instead of darkly contemplating past invasions.

In this time when country after country is turning its back on democracy, India has to be an example to countries around the world, this beautiful dream of nationhood expressed in the Hindu scriptures as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” – the whole earth is a family. We should all be rooting for this incredible experiment in multiplicity to work. As goes India, so goes democracy.

(Suketu Mehta is the author of ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, and ‘This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto’. He teaches journalism at New York University.)

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Sujatha Gidla

Seventy-five years ago, my uncle Satyamurthy, an untouchable sixteen-year-old and the first in his family to go to college, dressed in his best and joined the throngs on campus celebrating India’s liberation from the colonial yoke.

Now that the British have left, he naively believed, there will be no more poverty, no more caste oppression. Many among the downtrodden shared his hopes on that day, even as millions were forced to flee in the bloody partition of the country on sectarian lines.

In this year of Amrit (elixir, or nectar) anniversary, India has the highest number of extreme poor, caste violence is worse than ever before, and Muslims and Christians live under existential threat, while activists such as Teesta Setalvad and those framed in the Bhima Koregaon case face severe repression. Indians still await that elusive freedom.

(Sujatha Gidla was raised in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, and lives in New York. She is the author of a family history, ‘Ants Among Elephants’.)

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Yashica Dutt

What does freedom look like? To a people whose sovereignty lives on borrowed time, when anyone walking by can clank our metal cages they named caste, rattling our very belonging in this country they declared free a long time ago.

In ‘47, we heard freedom was fought for, hard-earned, won. Ours was still at bargain, with a republic, whose zeal to be the ‘world’s largest, brightest, newest’ couldn’t conceal the chains of caste they never considered breaking.

Freeing us too, would make us all free, with no one left to look down beneath, from above the slippery ladder of caste they sit on, defining their world, and ours. Redefining their existence, rearranging the illusion of ‘upperness’ that gives their life any meaning, would be excessive. We must wait for our turn for freedom. Asking for it too soon makes us greedy. Always asking, always demanding, to rupture the only order that ever made sense to them.

They say things are worse now. They’re right. Illusory, phantom or evident, all freedoms now lie at stake. Freedoms fought, won and bargained evaporate as we watch. Like a brass tap dripping through the night, and then, all at once. We have been here before. WE have always been here. It’s worse for some, not all. It never is.

“Will she lose it again?” Ambedkar had asked about India, months before he declared her, and her Dalit children truly free, with democracy. She is losing it now. But freedom, even at a bargain, is priceless, worth striving for. As people in waiting for 75 years to be free, we’d agree.

(Yashica Dutt is a journalist and award-winning author of the best-selling memoir on caste, ‘Coming Out as Dalit’. She is a leading anti-caste expert and lives in New York.)

( Courtesy : ‘India at 75’, PEN,